Differentiate This!

product positioning Many of my small to medium size clients, such as regional IT service providers, struggle when I ask them what differentiates them from their competitors.  The best they can come up with is often:

  • “We really listen to our customers’ needs.”
  • “Our staff really cares about our customer’s success.”
  • “We take a consultative approach, rather than just trying to sell them stuff.”

Sound familiar? It should. These aren’t differentiators – they’re the minimum requirements to keep the doors open. To effectively explain what makes you better, you need to define and describe it from the customer’s perspective.

If you think your products or services are too much like commodities to stand out, check out this in-store display for a lowly cement screw, used to attach walls to concrete floors or hardware to blocks or bricks.

How My Screw Is Better Why The Customer Should Care
Stikfit T25 Bit For one-handed installation. (Speeds work, reduces effort.)
Serrated head Flush seating . (Improves appearance, makes painting easier.)
Serrated threads For quick install (speeds work).
Sharp point For immediate pickup. (Speeds work, reduces effort.)

In a few dozen words and an easy-to-understand picture, this screw manufacturer has given a harried contractor or do-it-yourselfer four reasons why their “commodity” product will make their life easier.  How can a regional IT services provider do the same for a busy prospect?

We’re Good, Just Like Everyone Else

The first step is the hardest: Identifying those subtle differences that set you apart from all your  “me-too” competitors. These differentiators do exist – the challenge is identifying them and explaining what they mean to the customer.  I’ll use some of the most common strengths I’ve seen in service providers and provide the customer benefits as an illustration.

How My IT Services Are Better Why The Customer Should Care
Platinum certification with leading hardware vendors. Faster and less expensive fixes for problems.
We care. Really. We work nights and weekends to keep you up and running in a jam.
We’re small and locally owned. You don’t have to chase multiple vendors in case of a problem. You can call our CEO’s cell 24/7 if you have an issue with our service.
We understand your industry. We stay on top of the latest technology and best practices in your industry so you don’t have to.

 Next: Do Your Homework

All these are obviously generic benefits for a generic regional IT services firm. But the same process can work for any hardware, software or services vendor. It even works in a new market like the Internet of Things or containers where multiple vendors make “me too” claims.

Whatever your offering, the lesson from this concrete screw holds true: Every product and service has some market differentiators. The hard work is identifying them and explaining in very clear terms how they help the customer.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

DevOps Hits A “WTF?” Snag

DevOps marketing It’s hard to get where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re going.

Consider DevOps, the merger of development and operations processes to speed applications to market. If the buyer and seller have different definitions of what it is, they’ll expect different results. Which is a recipe for wasted time and money, not to mention unhappy customers.

You Say “DevOps,” I Say…”?????”

For dreary confirmation of the confusion, look no further than a recent report from B2B ratings and review firm Clutch. Clutch surveyed 247 IT professionals about their use of, and views about, DevOps, starting with a question about what DevOps is. The four leading choices, with the percent choosing each:

  • 35%: “… a culture, movement or practice that emphasizes the collaboration and communication of both software developers and other [IT] professionals while automating the process of software delivery and infrastructure changes.” (from Wikipedia.)
  • 24%: “…an approach to operations … uniting development and operations teams to automate and standardize processes for infrastructure deployment…” (From Rackspace.)
  • 21%: “…a philosophy or ideology [with] many of the underlying principles and language … grounded in a combination of agile software development plus Kaizen, Lean Manufacturing, and Six Sigma methodologies.” (from Hewlett Packard Enterprise.)
  • 20% “…the combination of cultural philosophies, practices, and tools that increases an organization’s ability to deliver applications and services at high velocity.” (From Amazon Web Services.)

What is This, Religion?

Culture? Philosophy? Ideology? This spread of answers, with no definition getting support from more than about a third of the respondents, shows an alarming fuzziness around what customers expect from DevOps, and thus how providers should sell it.

Before you all start shouting that you can’t “sell” DevOps like a network router or a software testing project, I get it. But there is “stuff” you definitely do sell around DevOps, whether it’s cloud infrastructure, code repositories, training or consulting.

So to sell those DevOps-related products and services, how about focusing on the consistent themes across the definitions of 1) collaboration, 2) communication 3) automation and 4) standardization, all of which deliver the holy grail of faster time to market for new software and services.

DevOps Positioning

In developing marketing content around DevOps products and services, then, avoid the religious wars around jargon and definition and focus on the key features and the benefits.  For example:

  • How our new chat software, code repository or staff training enable collaboration. 
  • How our workflow management, service monitoring or performance analytics software, or our best practices frameworks, improve communication.
  • How our scripting tools, automation server or support for Puppet and Chef enable automation and
  • How our development, orchestration or monitoring platforms increase standardization and thus improved reliability, performance and security.

And don’t forget, of course, examples from actual customers about how your products and services not boosted agility and sped new applications to market, but reduced costs or increased sales – the real bottom line.

If you’re looking for DevOps tools, by the way, check out this great list of 50 top DevOps tools, which does a great job of explaining the benefits of each. You’re also free to use, adapt or steal my sample drip campaign for DevOps products or services.

Do your customers, or clients, agree on what DevOps means and when they’ve achieved it? And does the confusion get in the way of effective marketing and customer success?

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Three Steps to Make Old Technology Cool

Three ways to make old technology cool again.

Even tape can be made exciting. Well, maybe not all tape…

Are you trying to get the media and bloggers interested in what they think is obsolete, duller-than-dirt or just plain irrelevant technology? We’re talking stuff like mainframe management tools, sequential “waterfall” software development, legacy databases or point-to-point middleware to connect applications.

All have been around for decades, none are new and cool and all tend to make one’s eyes glaze over. But all of this stuff is still in used. It’s often, in fact, essential to things like ATM networks, manufacturing automation systems or air traffic control systems. Without them, a lot of life would stop. And because they’re often too difficult, expensive or risky to replace, there’s a great story if you can explain how they can be revamped for use in today’s social, mobile, cloud environments.

And that’s where our opportunity, and our challenge, comes in: Pushing back on product managers to make sure they can explain their compelling new story about an older technology. Last fall, Spectra Logic did a super job getting me, and a bunch of other media/analyst types, excited about a supposedly over-the-hill technology: Tape. I was impressed with their new marketing message and since then realized there were three essential elements to it:

  • Assure the market you’re still alive and kicking: Spectra Logic told us they’re consistently profitable. growing and invest heavily in R&D. That takes care of the “company in a dying industry” reaction. And while they sell hardware, most of the value-add (and most of their engineering work) goes into the software that runs it. That makes clear they’re not just a commodity hardware vendor.
  • Pitch a visionary, industry-changing vision: Rather than just a “better, cheaper faster” version of their current products, Spectra Logic laid out a vision of how object-based, long-term storage of unstructured data helps their customers move to the cloud. Note how they cleverly linked old technology (tape) to new, hot buzzwords (object store and cloud.)
  •  Prove the vision: Spectra Logic had new products to announce, real big-name customers on-hand to say why they like what Spectra Logic is doing, and a road map for future enhancements.

How might messaging work for other “ho-hum” technologies or ways of working? Try these on for size:

Tired Technology Wired Vision *
Mainframe management We combine mature mainframe discipline and security practices with modern DevOps-style continuous code updates to safely share the valuable data in core “systems of record.”
Legacy databases Our proprietary parsing algorithms translate the data relationships at the core of relational data stores for use in today’s more scalable cloud-based platforms. You won’t lose the years of analysis and context built into your legacy databases as you move to less expensive, more scalable cloud data stores.
Waterfall software development Our workflow and code repository combines waterfall’s strengths in methodical, step-by-step planning and design with DevOps’ rapid time to market. You get reliability, predictable performance and faster code releases.
Point-to-point middleware Our “wrappering” technology lets you easily use and adapt your platform-specific point-to-point integration to a more flexible, fast-changing services-oriented world. You don’t have to re-invent the integration wheel to get the speed and flexibility of a service-oriented approach.

(Apologies to Wired magazine) Now, all of these are off-the-cuff suggestions from a mere ink-stained wretch. True technical wizards will come up with even more relevant and buzz-inducing ideas.  What these have in common, and what Spectra Logic did so well, was to showcase the underlying strengths of the “tired” technology and describe a road map for holding on to those strengths in a more “wired” world.

Our challenge as marketers is to refine our technology “rebranding” until it’s achieved these three goals. The challenge, of course, comes when our employers (or clients) insist on going public with a re-branding that isn’t fully baked. But that’s another story…

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Eight Votes for Telling IT Prospects the Truth

Bigstock_48447038 (2)A month or so ago I suggested a daring concept: The IT vendors tell prospects the truth about the shortcomings, as well as the strengths, of their offerings.

My rationale: Customers will find out anyway, and telling them first strengthens your credibility, and also helps filter those who aren’t a good fit anyway.

Turns out at least eight marketers in the Spiceworks Tech Marketing community agreed. “If you don’t position your solution with a customer candidly, all you’ll end up with is a dissatisfied customer that is not referenceable and who will eventually leave you,” wrote “JBarnet” from Promys, a vendor of professional services automation software. But first they’ll tell other prospects how badly it all turned out.”

Disqualify Early

“I’ve trained many salespeople over the years, the ones (who have) killed quota consistently sell exclusively to ideal customer prospects and quickly weed out poor fit prospects,” he continued. “The reps who struggle try and turn weak fit prospects into customers,” and being honest is a great way to qualify prospects

“Within the first five minutes I state the OSes we support,” wrote “Josh” from cloud VPN vendor Pertino. “There are some variables that we can’t always uncover in the process, but I’d rather disqualify (the prospect) early and know that we may have a shot with them later than have them try it out and be disappointed.”

“If you’re not going to be honest, someone else online will be and those reading your content are going to call it out,” wrote Angela Cope with hardware and services provider softchoice.  “…there are pros and cons to everything, but if you outline which tech is best for (the customer) based on his/her needs, then the customer is going to start to build a deeper relationship with you that is based on trust. Getting your boss to think that way may be a challenge, but will be worth it in the end.”

The MessageOps team from the migration consulting services firm of the same name asked not only that vendors admit their weaknesses, but offer a fix. “I would certainly value a vendor telling me that `xyz’ isn’t something they believe they are the best at but I would appreciate it more if it came with a solution,” they wrote.

Let the Customer Decide

“…as a small company, we have to make sure that we establish our identity early on as not just another product, but a platform to partner with,” wrote “Josh” from Pertino. “We want to know that our customer is going to be 100% happy with deploying Pertino, and thus, we almost try to disqualify prospects.”

One example of a potential shortcoming: Pertino offers no command-line interface for admins to write their own commands. “…some ITers actually like the power of knowing CLI commands. So does that make it a weakness? We think no…” but their strategy is to “…Lay it all on the table and let the customer decide which are strengths and which are weaknesses.”

A similar vote came from Matt Stephenson, who manages Symantec’s presence on on-line communities such as SpiceWorks. “There are times when the facts are going to be batting practice fastballs about what makes our products shine,” he wrote. “Other times…the facts are 100 mph fastballs that blaze right past our strengths to our biggest faults. Owning those faults and admitting them….even…dare I say…pointing out where a competitor might be a better fit…establishes each of us someone who can be trusted.”

Honesty for the Rest of Us?

I’m wondering if my responses were skewed because the SpiceWorks community is, admittedly, all about blunt feedback to vendors and its members.

But how does how approach work out in the wide world, especially with more conservative management or with vendors who are in a downturn and struggling for survival with every sale? Have you proposed this and succeeded, or been laughed out of the room?

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

bigstock-Chair-3842724A recent McKinsey & Company analysis shows many business to business companies are “talking past” their prospects by stressing themes they don’t care about.

Specifically, it said B2B vendors talk a lot more about social responsibility, sustainability, and global reach than their customers care about. At the same time, two themes that are far more important to customers – the vendor’s effective supply chain management and specialist market knowledge—“were among those least mentioned by B2B suppliers.”

Maybe worst of all, “honest and open dialogue, which customers considered most important, was one of the three themes not emphasized at all” by the 90 companies studied. Maybe if the companies studied actually talked to their customers they’d understand what was important to them.

Tweedle-Dum, Tweedle-Dee

I was particularly struck, however, by the report’s finding of “a surprising similarity among the brand themes that leading B2B companies emphasized, suggesting a tendency to follow the herd rather than create strongly differentiated brand messages.

This is something I see all the time in the briefings I get from vendors. At a recent user conference, one IT pro shook his head at all the sales calls he gets from different vendors, “all saying the same thing.” McKinsey recommends that marketers talk to their salespeople (what a concept!) to understand “the degree to which customers see your products as differentiated or worth a premium… If you hear about consistent pushback on pricing or an inability to articulate a compelling argument for the value of your products, you’ve got a problem.”

It also said “Leading companies make extensive use of frontline interaction and market research to stay in tune with customer needs and perceptions. For example, Hilti, a maker of professional construction tools, has its salespeople do double duty as distributors and hands-on market researchers at customer construction sites.”

Three Potholes to Avoid

I can’t tell you how to get your marketing and sales people to share more insights about customers. But here are three mistakes I see technology vendors make in their me-too market messaging, and how not to repeat them.

  • The endless “solution” statement: Going on and on about the problems you solve rather than how you solve them. The customer knows they’re facing a flood of unstructured data, new security regulations or user-chosen mobile devices. Rather than repeat the problems they face, explain how you fix them more quickly, easily, cheaply or completely than your competitors. If you can’t quickly choose one of those adjectives, your messaging isn’t ready.
  • Hiding your secret sauce. Another good way to break out of the clutter is to describe specifically how you do what you do. For example: “Our patent-pending VPN technology moves mobile user sessions to the cloud. This lets you protect your data without tracking and managing every mobile device every user brings in.” Or: “Unlike other backup systems, we automatically test each backup as it is done, eliminating a chore you know you should be doing but never have time for.”
  • Relying on lazy buzzwords.  Is your “solution” “seamless,” “robust,” “end-to-end,” or “enterprise-class?” Are you “aligned with your customers’ needs?” “committed” to “customer service,” to “generating adding value” or to “understanding your customer’s needs?” So is everyone else these days. If you must use  these clichés, back them up with a feature and a benefit. Examples: “Our integration with all leading cloud providers lets you choose your deployment option.” “Our 24-hour help desk guarantees a response within 30 minutes to keep your business running” or an anecdote “Read how our storage appliances delivered 200% ROI for a leading online gaming site.”)

Even if you’re not boring your customers with feel-good tales corporate responsibility, you might unwittingly sound like every other “solution” out there. Check your messaging for these three flaws to lift yourself out of the clutter.

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Daring Concept: Tell IT Buyers the Truth

Bigstock_48447038 (2)When you’re producing marketing content to IT buyers, be honest about the downsides and tradeoffs of what you’re offering.

But don’t take my word for it. Read this first-person account by the anonymous “ITSlave” for SpiceWorks, which combines free IT management software for an online community for IT pros and the vendors who market to them.

No Perfect Cloud 

His story (the 239th in SpiceWorks’ “Spotlight on IT” series, was called “No silver bullet for slaying IT monsters: The cloud on a case-by-case basis.” In it, he explained how he evaluated whether “moving a service or application to the cloud may or may not make sense for a host of different reasons.” And, he said, the truth is that “As is the case with everything in life, there were also some trade-offs we had to make.”

He then described several examples. Moving a “flaky” Exchange 2010 implementation that suffered from poor planning and a rushed deployment to the cloud “is probably the best move we could have made,” he said. It lets them add or cut users as their contract-based business rises and falls from month to month. Uptime has been around 100 percent, better than he could have provided in-house. The major downside was they could no longer easily customize Exchange for each of their business units, but that was acceptable.

The second example was moving from tape-based backup that took too long to recover after an outage to a cloud-based disk-to-disk system. This reduced both time to recover and the amount of data they might lose in an outage. The tradeoff: Since they have no control over the recovery site, which is 2,000 miles away, they have to pay for annual testing. When his contract expires, ITSlave says, they’ll probably look to move to a more fully cloud-based infrastructure.

Finally, he described the pros and cons of their ongoing shift from physical to virtual servers using a local service provider. The good news is his employer is doing a better job finding, and eliminating, servers business units ordered but no longer need. That bad news is that creating a private cloud with the provider involved a “hefty” up-front cost, but it was still less than building it in-house.

They’ll Find Out Anyway

If this is how an IT buyer talks to his peers, isn’t this how you should talk to him as well? If you’re scared of pointing out the limits or tradeoffs in what you’re selling, look at studies that show IT buyers want product information from vendors, but they don’t want fluff. Remember also that ITSlave eventually learned the downsides of each of the cloud offerings he considered, and made the purchase in all three cases – and plans to stick with the provider in two out of the three examples.

Finally, admitting you’re not the best fit for every situation only increases your credibility, and weeds out prospects who you’ll eventually find aren’t a good fit.

Are you – or your clients – brave enough to tell the truth about your offerings? Or does this seem like the worst idea in the world to you?

Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

Marc Benioff Brings Flash Back to IT Marketing

Salesforce.com's Mark Benioff, not being shy

First, an apology for being off-line for so long, but a welcome flood of corporate marketing writing work has kept me heads-down over the ThinkPad. But a recent blast of sheer outrageousness from Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com was too much fun to ignore.

It’s been many years since we had the leader of a large IT organization who could build buzz and move markets through sheer force of personality and chutzpa. I remember, in particular, Scott McNealy’s evil jibes at the likes of Microsoft and IBM (though that didn’t keep Sun from sinking into irrelevancy by sticking too long with proprietary hardware and software in an open-source era.)

Steve Jobs is of course brilliant and witty, but he lets his products do the speaking — more to his credit. Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer is, well, eccentric on stage but his products haven’t been doing enough talking lately, especially in the mobile/social/search battlefields that are most critical today.

Which brings us to Benioff, who is a sheer font of conviction, bluster, chutzpa, call it what you will. His latest attention-getting blast is a call for a “corporate spring,” in which downtrodden corporate users (much like the citizens of Egypt, Libya and Syria) will rebel against the evil enterprise software that is taking away their personal freedom and, presumably, torturing them in cellars. They will be freed not by NATO jets and the sacrifice of their peers, but presumably by Salesforce.com’s cloud-based customer relationship management software.
I exaggerate, of course, but that’s part of the genius of bold marketing.
Benioff used the analogy to point to what he says is a huge divide between old-style software (one person doing one thing with an application, with sharing of information among users or mobile access a bolt-on) to apps such as Facebook where mobility and social interaction are at the core of the experience.
As reported by ZDnet, he showed pictures of Arab citizens holding up messages  and pointed out “there were no signs that said thank you Microsoft. There were no signs that said thank you IBM. The signs said Facebook.”
He didn’t bother to point out that a lot of the computers running Facebook depend on a Microsoft operating system, or that IBM developed the PC hardware standards that made cheap, affordable PCs (and thus Facebook) possible. And he didn’t point out there were no signs in the streets saying “Thank you Salesforce.com.” Not much use for all those pesky CRM fields when you’re dodging tear gas, after all.
But like I said, accuracy isn’t the point when you’re doing bold marketing.  Benioff got me, at least, thinking about if there is a huge revolution happening and, if so, what it is, what the “rebels” want and whether the outcome is a good thing. For that, if nothing else, he deserves credit.
Author: Bob Scheier
Visit Bob's Website - Email Bob
I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.